It's been a long time since we've seen an American spacecraft floating down on three huge, red and white main parachutes to splashdown. By my count, the last time it happened was at the conclusion of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.
Every successful manned U.S. space flight since the shuttle entered service in 1981 has glided to a stop in the Mojave Desert or at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The word "splashdown" reentered space lexicon earlier this month when commercial space upstart SpaceX (Hawthorne, Calif.) successfully completed a high-altitude "drop test" of its Dragon spacecraft that could someday be used to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. View a video of the drop test here.
When those three main chutes deploy, crews will again know they have returned safely to Earth. (The main parachutes are huge. The engineer who designed the Apollo main chutes recalled that, once folded and stowed, the thin material was as dense as maple.)
The Dragon drop test was another success for SpaceX, the high-flying commercial space venture launched by PayPal founder Elon Musk. The aerospace company has plenty of critics, many who insist that SpaceX is little more than a collection rocket scientist wannabes experimenting with taxpayer funds while reporting to a boss known for over-promising and over-extending himself both technically and financially.
SpaceX has nevertheless achieved two major milestones in recent months, including the successful launch in June of its multistage Falcon 9 rocket and this month's drop test of the Dragon spacecraft. The next big hurdle will be launching a pressurized Dragon capsule into Earth orbit, then returning it in one piece.
SpaceX has fast become a lightning rod in the ongoing debate over the future direction of U.S. manned spaceflight. It has been lobbying hard for more commercial space funding in NASA's fiscal 2011 budget. The budget debate also has become the key public forum for determining the space agency's future direction. Critics say NASA is sacrificing crew safety in its push to bring on contractors like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to take over tasks like ferrying astronauts and supplies to the space station once the shuttle program ends next year. (NASA will use Russian Soyuz spacecraft as a bridge to a new orbital transportation system.)
If SpaceX can continue achieving milestones, they and other commercial space ventures should be given every opportunity to compete for a piece of NASA's space budget -- as long as the space agency ensures that new commercial systems are safe and thoroughly tested. If SpaceX flunks a test, then they move to the back of line like every other competitor.